Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Teachers caught in the muddle

Charles Glen wrote in Wilson Quarterly about the profound disagreements about the purpose of schooling that leave teachers in a muddle. Should schooling aim at shaping the character of pupils? Many have argued that it should, going so far as to claim that liberal democracy cannot survive without common schools to form the correct character of future citizens:

. . .As Montesquieu pointed out in The Spirit of the Laws (1748), “there need not be much integrity for a monarchical or despotic government to maintain or sustain itself.... But in a popular state there must be an additional spring, which is virtue.” For this reason, “it is in republican government that the full power of education is needed.... One can define this virtue as love of the laws and the homeland. This love, requiring a continual preference of the public interest over one’s own, produces all the individual virtues.... in a republic, everything depends on establishing this love, and education should attend to inspiring it.”

The American founding generation agreed. Benjamin Rush urged, in 1786, that “our schools of learning, by producing one general and uniform system of education, will render the mass of the people more homogeneous and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.” Thomas Jefferson wrote, the same year, that schools were the most important instrument of society for “ameliorating the condition, protecting the virtue, and advancing the happiness of man.” The 1790s brought a spate of proposals to create a national system of education. A generation later, Horace Mann pointed out that “it may be an easy thing to make a Republic, but it is a very laborious thing to make Republicans.... But if… a Republic be devoid of intelligence, it will only the more closely resemble an obscene giant.., whose brain has been developed only in the region of the appetites and passions, and not in the organs of reason and conscience.... Such a republic, with all its noble capacities for beneficence, will rush with the speed of a whirlwind to an ignominious end.”

On the other hand, many Americans have strongly resisted the idea that the state should try to mold its citizens through control over religion and education. This resistance led to the creation of more than 100,000 elected school boards across the country, established to keep education decisions close to parents and local citizens.

By now, of course, local control is almost meaningless, even in a “local control” state such as Montana. Local school boards hire teachers licensed by the state and treat them as specified by state labor laws. Students are given tests created and mandated by the state. The role of the federal government, though limited, has grown greatly under NCLB. Its influence is greatest in schools that serve poor children. The notion that citizens can have meaningful influence on their schools by attending local school board meetings is mostly a fantasy.

Resistance to government control of education has continued because critics believe that giving government the power to shape the beliefs and attitudes of children is, over the long term, a threat to freedom. Such critics share with the promoters of a strong state role a high estimation of the power of schooling to counter the influence of family and society on the developing child. They agree that schools and teachers are a crucial factor in preserving or transforming culture and social life. In On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill spoke for those who urged that government should not be entrusted with a monopoly on schooling, while conceding it the role of ensuring that schooling was available to all:

The objections which are urged with reason against State education do not apply to the enforcement of education by the State, but to the State’s taking upon itself to direct that education, which is a totally different thing.... All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education. A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another; and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government.., in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence.

The strong sense that schools need to teach values in a clear and distinctive way and the equally strong sense that state schools cannot favor any particular set of values is being resolved by a signficant trend (resisted successfully in Montana so far) toward parental choice provisions such as charter schools, magnet schools, and vouchers. Such innovations have the potential for schools to be free to try strong and distinctive approaches while parents retain the freedom to choose an approach appropriate to their goals for their children. Education may be moving in the direction Mill advocated, toward “many competing experiments.” This trend is bolstered by the growing body of evidence that “schools with distinctive character, including faith-based schools, are more effective than schools reflecting a lowest common denominator of values.”

The tension has been avoided in many communities that have had enough cultural agreement about the purpose of schooling--such as suburban schools where the values of academic success and achievement are widely shared by parents, students and teachers--to forge a strong identity. But many public schools continue trying to operate with a hodgepodge of incoherent values:

Here is a primary source of the confusion of teachers today. School reformers celebrate distinctive approaches to education, and parents seek them, but the norms of the profession continue to insist that all teachers (and schools) are interchangeable, and that neither should “impose their values.” But good teaching is all about urging those we teach to accept what we believe to be true and worthy of their acceptance. Bad teaching imposes values, too, and schools that are incoherent are not neutral or “value free.” Cynicism, indifference to truth, disinclination to carry out tasks thoroughly, and disrespect for others - all of these can be learned in school.

Only schools with a distinctive character to which staff and parents alike are committed can shape the character of pupils in positive ways. This is one reason why Catholic schools now enroll many non-Catholics, and some Evangelical schools serve pupils from non-Evangelical families. Parents in these cases perceive that a school centered on a religious ethos, even if it is not their own ethos, is more likely to reflect their own convictions about the good life they want for their children than a school without such a common ground. Motivated pupils, a relatively safe and undistracted environment, and a size that allows the pupils and adults to know one another well more than offsets, for these parents, the material advantages that public schools, with their computer labs and highly credentialed teachers, usually enjoy. Shared values and clarity about goals offer a distinct advantage to faith-based schools. According to a study by Susan P. Choy for the National Center for Education Statistics, 71 percent of teachers in small (fewer than 150 pupils) private schools agree that “colleagues share beliefs and values about central mission of school,” compared with 41 percent of those in small public schools. In large schools, with more than 750 pupils, both numbers drop, to 49 percent in private schools and only 26 percent in public schools.

. . .Unfortunately, many teachers have been made tentative and confused about such matters by their own schooling, and by college or graduate school teacher-training programs. They have been told that public schools should be “value neutral,” and have taken that to mean that they should seek to give the impression that they have no fixed convictions about any matter on which Americans disagree. Even more damaging, they may let their pupils assume that they have no understanding of the nature of a good and honorable life, which would serve to anchor such convictions.

The lives of teachers in many systems are plagued by inconsistent philosophies. Teachers are told that they need to teach the content specified in state standards. This is an essentially “conservative” task, passing on to a new generation the core knowledge and accumulated wisdom of society about what is important to know.

But they are also told their teaching should be “child-centered"--they should take their guidance not from curriculum mandates but from each student’s own needs and interests. They are taught to disparage “mere subject matter” and to believe that knowledge is changing too fast to focus on “mere” facts, and to feel that it is harmful to young people to suffer through tests and grades.

Teachers who pay attention to professional associations are also frequently told that they are the front line in the battle to transform society “by convincing pupils that the beliefs of their parents and of their communities of faith or tradition about the roles of men and women, about sexual orientations and practices, and about a host of other sensitive matters are simply wrong. In Plato’s sense, teachers are to disillusion their pupils about what they think they know and what meaning to attach to it.”

These various educational philosophies are not compatible. To implement any of them coherently is to exclude the others:

If we are entering, as it appears, an era of many competing educational experiments, teachers and school administrators must be made aware of an essential truth: different ways of understanding the goals of education have different implications for the classroom and curriculum. Before this can happen, however, we need to recognize that the competing goals of education themselves reflect different philosophical, even theological, choices about how we understand the nature of reality itself.

“Teachers’ Muddle.” The Wilson Quarterly

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/07 at 04:07 PM
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